The most important thing a pastor can do is pursue personal holiness. Robert Murray M’Cheyne, the famous nineteenth century Scottish Presbyterian, was right when he said, “The greatest need of my people is my own holiness.”
This may sound like pastoral hubris, but it is just the opposite. A faithful pastor knows that He must passionately pursue Christ. This is essential to being a pastor. A gospel minister who acknowledges this truth rightly ascertains the seriousness of his calling and the source of its fruitfulness.
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me…Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing,” said the Head of the Church (John 15:4-5). A gospel minister not pursuing Christ might as well be looking back from the plow (Luke 9:62). He is going nowhere and his labor will bear thistles rather than fruit.
In fact, a lack of personal holiness in the pastorate has ruined many churches and many lives. The pastor like a boulder on top of a hill, when falling, can have a cascading effect upon everything below him. Our adversary does not lack this knowledge. He is well aware that if he can make one pastor stumble or turn away from following Christ passionately, then an entire church can be affected. At times, an entire denomination, city, or even country can be negatively affected by one pastor’s sins. Conversely, where one finds a pastor, who is a man of Christ-like character and holiness, one also often finds maturity among the people under his care.
Why is this? Because apart from Christ, he can do nothing. Oh dear pastor, always remember this truth. Emblazon it upon your soul, seal it upon your heart, and continually recall it in your mind. Your intellect, your abilities, your gifts, and your experience, though helpful, do not produce fruit. Only He can. And He chooses to bear fruit through those who are abiding in Him.
As an under-shepherd, the pastor models before his congregation Christian living. The people in the pew look to him. He represents Christ, His demands, and His calling to those under his care. They will not believe what they hear from his lips, if they do not see it in his life. There is no way around it, hypocritical pastors produce wayward children. We cannot encourage what we do not know. This does not mean that a pastor has to be perfect. How foolish such an opinion would be. None of us will be perfectly holy in this life–far from it!
And every congregation knows this not only about themselves, but about their pastor. They know his weaknesses. They come to recognize his sinful inclinations and sinful habits. This is part of living in community. It is difficult to hide who we are. In fact, we cannot and must not hide who we are. Rather, pastors, declare with your living who you are in Christ. You are a sinner saved by grace. Show how a sinner saved by grace is to live. Seek to mortify the deeds of the flesh (Colossians 3:5) and live more and more in the graces of Christ (Colossians 3:12ff). Strive to manifest works of righteousness for His glory (Ephesians 2:10). Continually beat the drum of resting and striving by His grace (Matthew 11:28-29; Philippians 2:12). Our people are watching and by God’s grace, they will follow where we lead. Not only by our words, but by our very lives, we are proclaiming Him, “warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom that we might present everyone mature in Christ. For this I (we) toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me (us)” (Colossians 1:28).
Pastors, you do not bear responsibility for the results or fruit of your ministry, but you do bear responsibility for the effectiveness of your ministry. And nothing is more essential to your effectiveness than personal holiness–dependence upon the Lord, living in His grace, passionately pursing His person and truth, and laboring for His glory.
As Robert Murray M’Cheyne said on another occasion, “A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.” By His grace, be that weapon for His glory.